Category Archives: Travel

The Day The Ocean Tried To Kill Me

I was recently recounting this story to a friend and I realized that I never mentioned it on my blog, so here it is.

This tale is subtitled “How My Friend Austin Tried to Kill Me”.  We were on Maui for the eponymous Austin’s wedding.  A week of sun, sand, surf, and celebration.  It was our last day and we all had a late flight so we decided to hit the beach one last time before departing.  It was simply gorgeous out.  80’s, nary a cloud in the sky, calm as calm can be.  Austin comes flipper-flopping in from a snorkeling excursion and says that he just saw a sea turtle out over by the giant outcropping of lava rocks nearby.  I, having never seen a sea turtle in its natural environs, decided that I needed to find said turtle.  I grab someone’s snorkel mask and head out sans swim fins because none were available and I’m a decent enough swimmer and my destination wasn’t terribly far out.

I’m out searching for maybe 10 minutes and still no sea turtle in sight.  At this point, I’m in this kind of natural alcove made by the surrounding lava rocks and probably 50 or so yards from shore.  I’m swimming along the surface, looking down in vain for the turtle when the water kind of slaps me on the head.  I find this strange so I bob up to see what’s what and get my bearings again.  Nothing seems amiss so I head right back to it.  No more than 30 seconds later and I get hit again so I bob back up and the wind is blowing in gales and the ocean is a frothy frenzy of blue and white and everyone is very quickly exiting the beach.  It’s definitely time to head back.  As I said, I was in this volcanic rock alcove so heading directly to shore wasn’t practical at this point so I decided to try swimming parallel to the shore a while up the beach where i was met by waves of water lolling over volcanic rock which was under water prior to the wind kicking up, but was now exposed to the air at regular intervals.  Attempting to get through there with the threat of being smashed on the rocks didn’t seem like the best of plans, so I attempted the same down the beach the other direction and was met with the same conditions.  At this point, with the water in a frenzy as it was, I was getting pretty tired so I bobbed there for a bit to weigh my options.  I remember thinking to myself that this is when people drown, but I’m not one to panic.  I wasn’t entirely sure how far out to sea I’d need to go to get past the volcanic rock so I decided my best bet was to swim further in to the alcove and climb out over the volcanic rock.  Luckily, the alcove provided some natural shelter so the water was fairly calm the further inside you went.  Unluckily, I was still surrounded by volcanic rock and the water was very shallow at this point.  Attempting to walk on the rock in bare feet was painful so I decided to swim as much as possible over the rock before having to walk the rest of the way.  Swimming through the shallows, my legs were getting scratched by the rocks and I was getting endlessly poked and prodded by sea urchins that had taken shelter there.  Finally, when I couldn’t swim any further, I raised myself up and began the slow and painful process of walking the rest of the way to shore over needle sharp lava rocks.  By the time I reached sand, my legs were a bloody mess and my feet were screaming in pain.  I doused my legs in sand to keep the worst of the bleeding in check and headed back to our room to lick my wounds.  And by lick my wounds, I mean pull shards of volcanic rock out of the bottom of my feet.  Rock shards would occasionally dislodge themselves from my feet for the next few months.  In fact, to this day, I’m pretty sure there’s still one left right underneath the callus on my left foot by my pinky toe.  A little souvenir to perpetually remind me of the day the ocean tried to kill me.

Travelogue: Grand Cayman

Things to know about Grand Cayman: It is expensive.  That’s what happens when everything needs to be imported.  Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere except for transportation.  Almost everyone accepts both U.S. dollars and C.I. dollars, but expect change in C.I. dollars.  The exchange rate for such transactions is $1.25 USD for $1.00 CID regardless of the current currency fluctuations.  Get to know the public transportation system.  It is awesome and only costs $2.00 CID or $2.50 USD.  Use lots of sunscreen.

Social issues on Grand Cayman: If you look, you will notice a strange dynamic in Grand Cayman where you have a bunch of locals who are generally black and there full time and a bunch of long term visitors from other British protectorates who may stay for years.  The problem is that the latter have a much easier time getting the good jobs at the posher resorts and tour companies.  There is lots to be said about the inherent racism in this and it would be very interesting to explore why this dynamic exists there, but I don’t have nearly the expertise to comment on it.  It is something I believe you should be aware of, though.

Sunday, April 20th

Our flight from Chicago to Grand Cayman is uneventful.  It takes under four hours to get there.  North/south travel times are so skewed in my mind.  You can get to Grand Cayman from Chicago faster than you can get to San Francisco.  Crazy.

We went the AirBnB route and rented a really nice condo just across the street from Seven Mile Beach.  It’s a three bedroom/three bathroom condo split among three levels.  There were five of us staying there and all were quite comfortable.  It was a perfectly enjoyable place to stay and my only complaints would be there weren’t enough hangers or towel hooks.  Other than that, I highly recommend it.

It being somewhat late by the time we arrived, we met up with the rest of the wedding group (more on that later) for dinner at Decker’s (that’s the Trip Advisor page because Google says the restaurant’s main page may have been hacked).  The meal was excellent and I highly recommend dining there.  From there, the ladies all retired for the evening and the gents (and I use that term loosely) headed to the Grand Cayman Beach Suits bar for some drinks.  They were expensive and mediocre.

Monday, April 21st

Time to hit the beach!  Seven Mile Beach is quite beautiful. It is westward facing so you can see some really nice sunsets from it.  It is also quite calm for the ocean.  I assume that it’s because of its westward facing into the Gulf of Mexico, but I could be wrong.  The beach itself stretches for a little over five miles, not the seven advertised in the name.  All along the eastern edge of the beach are resorts and even some private homes.  It is a very enjoyable walk along the beach as long as you wear protection from the Sun.  And speaking of the Sun, for this trip to the beach, I learned exactly which portions of my back I can not reach myself.  As my friend said, my sunburn looked like someone has ripped wings off from my back.  He also burned pretty much everywhere despite very liberal applications of sunscreen.  I used to mock him for claiming that sunscreen doesn’t work for him.  I shall mock him no longer.  For that…

Being on an island, we figured that hitting a sushi restaurant is a must.  We went to Yoshi Sushi which came highly recommended and is considered the sushi place to go to on Grand Cayman.  It was disappointingly mediocre.  For me, it was the rice that was the biggest mark against Yoshi.  It was kind of blah.  Perhaps it’s because of the water they use which comes from a desalinization plant?  I guess we’re a little spoiled coming from Chicago which has a plethora of excellent sushi restaurants.

After sushi, we stopped at a bar next door called Legendz, which I found out later is owned by the same people as Yoshi and Eat’s Cafe next door (which I heard is wonderful).  The drinks were fine but the service wasn’t terribly good even though the bar was mostly empty.

Tuesday, April 22nd

We head out to Georgetown to explore the city.  The day is oppressively hot with high humidity and very little cloud cover or breeze and one of us is badly burned.  We explore the city for a while and find it to be mostly a tourist trap with lots of jewelry and knick-knack stores.  What else can you expect from a major cruise ship stop, I guess?

We stopped at a really nice oceanfront bar right behind the Casanova restaurant but whose name I can not recall.  We spent hours drinking wildly inconsistent piña coladas (ranging from excellent to blah) and staring out to sea.  I also had this excellent tuna tartar appetizer.  There was a snorkeling spot right off the bar and a few of our friends who were smart enough to bring their swimwear went snorkeling there and report it to be excellent.

The evening proved to be one of the highlights of the trip.  We went on a Bio Bay Tour.  This is one of those experiences that is very difficult to describe.  There is a bay on Grand Cayman where the water is bathwater warm.  It is inhabited by billions of bio-luminescent phytoplankton.  That is, plankton that can cast light.  We took a pontoon boat across the North Sound to the eastern shore where the bay is located.  We arrived shortly after sunset, but the light still lingered in the sky so we waited for darkness while our tour guide, Michael, explained what we were going to see.  Finally, darkness sets in and we enter the water, snorkel masks in tow.  Our disturbances in the water cause the phytoplankton to light up like eerily glowing tiny fireflies.  We spend the next half hour or so pretending to cast fireballs and snapping our fingers underwater and watching the hairs on our arms light up with disturbed life.  If you lay very still and look down into the water, it looks like you are staring down into a brilliantly clear night sky filled with twinkling stars. And speaking of stars, we were treated to a mostly clear sky as we crossed back across the sound.  The darkness allowed us to see more stars than most of us have seen in a long time.  It is a shame that we live in the light polluted world that we do because the night sky is magnificent and awe inspiring when viewed in its full glory.

Our other tour guide, Angie, was kind enough to drop us all off at Peppers Smokehouse where she joined us for some drinks while we ate dinner and, of course, drank.  The food at Peppers was pretty good.  I had whatever fish of the day they were serving and quite enjoyed it.  They also have a really good selection of mixed drinks, all of which were quite tasty. Shortly after dinner, we were joined by Angie’s roommate, who happened to be at the bar when we arrived.  We all spent the next hour or so in pleasant conversation as they both regaled us with their “how I came to be on the island” stories.  I am endlessly fascinated by stories like that and am disappointed that I didn’t hear more about them or meet many other island transplants so I could hear their stories as well.  Angie was also kind enough to offer us a ride back to our condo, but some stupid sort of politeness and not wanting to be an imposition made us say no.  Ray, when two beautiful women offer you a ride home, you say YES!

Wednesday, April 23rd

Finally, some snorkeling!  A few of us head up to Cemetery Beach, so named shockingly enough because there’s a cemetery right there, for what we’re told is the best snorkeling on the island.  Much of the coral appears to be dead and there is very little plant life, but the variety of fish is decent enough to make the snorkeling enjoyable.  The good stuff is quite a bit always from shore so I’d recommend that you be an average swimmer with fins to try it.  Every time I go snorkeling for the first time on a trip, I am reminded of how much I enjoy snorkeling.  There’s just something about the rhythmic breathing and the effortlessness of movement that it brings that I find so soothing.  We also met this really nice couple from Louisiana who were on shore leave from a cruise for the day.  They got some great underwater photography shots that they were kind enough to share, including some awesome shots of a spotted eagle ray, which sadly I did not see myself.

I think today is the day that I was able to take a nap.  If you do not know me, you do not know how momentous an event this truly is.  I do not nap.  It is well that I did, too, because the main event of the trip is coming up.  I am, of course, talking about dinner.  Dinner was at the absolutely amazing Blue in the Ritz-Carlton which deserves its own blog entry.

Thursday, April 24th

Grand Cayman has only one distillery and that’s the Cayman Spirits Company.  Today, we took a tour of their distillery.  The tour was quite fascinating and our tour guide was an unbelievable character.  The Cayman Spirits Company is famous for their Seven Fathoms Rum which they age by putting it into barrels and suspending the barrels in seven fathoms of water at secret locations in the surrounding ocean.  Pretty cool, huh?  Seven Fathoms Rum is available at Binny’s and I strongly suggest that you check it out if you like rum.  But of course, the highlight of a distillery tour is the tasting.  Oh, and taste I did!  They have a line of Governor’s Reserve rums that are absolutely to die for.  I tried the following: banana, coconut, white, dark, spiced.  So yummy!  Sadly, they are not yet available in the U.S., but they hope to change that soon.  They’ve also started producing a vodka which I found very drinkable despite not being much of a straight vodka fan.  The pièce de résistance was their special rum of the month.  For April, it was a Scotch Bonnet infused rum.  As you might guess, it is quite spicy and also very flavorful.  Our guide even mixed some up with Clamato and a little Worcestershire sauce for the most unbelievable Caesar drink you will ever taste.  For March, they made limoncello, and for May they’re making a lime infused rum.  I am now the proud owner of one of those Scotch Bonnet infused rum beauties and the distiller and the guide even signed the bottle for me.

While we were doing the distillery tour, a couple from our group went on an insanely long bike ride all through the west end of the island.  One is a very experienced biker and the other is not and they were able to make it back to our condo where the inexperienced one promptly collapsed from exhaustion.  There was still a few miles of biking left to do to return the bikes so I jumped on one of the bikes to return it  back in Georgetown.  Riding bikes in Grand Cayman is a little harrowing what with them driving on the wrong (left) side of the road and having to navigate traffic circles, but it’s also a very bikeable island once you get used to that.  I am surprised more people don’t bike everywhere there.  If given the opportunity, I certainly would.

Now we’re finally coming to the reason we all came to this island; the wedding!  This evening was only the rehearsal dinner and it was at Michael’s Genuine.  It was a fantastic dinner and the entire wedding group was there.  They served everything family style and there was a delicious red snapper, along with jerk chicken, and beef tenderloin, both of which were good, but the snapper was so much better.  They were served with some decent sides, but the calaloo is what stole the show.  Think of it as a kind of creamed spinach only made with local greens and much tastier.

I decided to try to go for a night swim but became a bit freaked out by the blackness of the ocean and the emptiness of the beach.  So I decided to take a bit of a walk along the beach during which I didn’t run into a soul.  Why aren’t people walking along the beach at night?  It’s beautiful!

Friday, April 25th

The wedding day!  But first, more snorkeling!  This time we head up to Governor’s Beach, so named because of the Governor’s mansion nearby.  This was another highly recommended snorkeling site and I found it to be better than Cemetery Beach.  The coral was slightly more alive, though still disappointingly less than vibrant,  and there was more vegetation and it was a bit closer to shore.  The fauna was more of the same but more plentiful.

Now, finally, the wedding.  The wedding was held on the beach in front of the Grand Cayman Beach Suites where the bride and groom were staying.  It was a simple and mercifully short affair as the weather was humid and hot and threatening rain.  The exchanged vows were personal, heartfelt, and beautiful.  In lieu of exchanging rings, slightly mismatching halves of a pendant were exchanged which I thought was a really nice touch.

The wedding was immediately followed by cocktails and hors d’ oeuvre at the 10 feet away restaurant, Hemingway’s while various wedding pictures were taken.  Then the rain started. We were supposed to have dinner on the upstairs outdoor patio overlooking the beach, but the rain squashed that idea.  Instead, we had dinner in a nice air-conditioned conference room.  Considering how warm it was, this is probably for the best, given there was still dancing to be done, but I think we all lost out a little on a beautiful dinnertime view.  The dinner itself was quite good.  For starters, I had a wonderful butternut squash soup.  My main course was a generously sized, but mediocre tasting tuna steak which came with some excellently prepared asparagus and some wonderfully flavored mashed potatoes.  At least I think there were mashed potatoes, I may have been a liiiiitle drunk by this time.  Desert was a slice of an enjoyable Key Lime pie.

Then came the dancing.  Oh, the dancing.  You have never seen a greater concentration of awkward white guy dancing in your life.  It matters not, for we all had a good time looking like fools.

After working up a good sweat dancing, a group of us decided to go swimming, because what you really want to be doing is swimming in the dark while drunk.  There was a trampoline set up a ways from the shore in front of the resort and we decided to give that a spin.  We quickly discovered it was not terribly conducive to trampolining and served more as a convenient way to lay down and stare at the stars and chat.  I was quickly thrown over the edge for commenting on how we only have one more day in paradise.  Looking up at the stars revealed the stars to be moving quite quickly across the sky.  But stars aren’t supposed to be moving.  Oh, right, it’s just my head that’s spinning.  After a time relaxing on the trampoline, we headed back to shore but not before each of us failed spectacularly at dismounting gracefully from the trampoline.  I performed a wondrous belly flop.

Saturday, April 26th

After a quick swim on the beach, the menfolk and one of the womenfolk head to Luca for lunch.  Our last day there and we finally find a somewhat reasonable eating option.  For $22 CID, you get an appetizer, a main course, and a desert along with a glass of wine.  I had a somewhat blah broccoli soup followed by a pasta dish with more mediocre tuna but in an absolutely scrumptious red sauce of some sort.  Desert was some wonderful profiteroles.

Then it was tour time once again.  This time, it was a catamaran ride to Stingray City followed by a quick trip to the barrier reef that encloses the northern edge of the North Sound.  The tour was by Red Sail Sports and they did a wonderful job.  Stingray City is a small stretch of shallow water located near the northeast corner of the North Sound.  Despite being quite a ways distance from land, the water is only around four feet deep and a beautiful liquid blue.  As the name implies, there are a bunch of stingrays there.  Fear not, these are not the Steve Irwin, stab you a hundred times in the chest stingrays, though they do have the barb on their tail for defense.  They’re pretty harmless as long as you don’t go trampling them.  Our guides would, in fact, catch one and hand it to us to hold and get our picture taken with it.  Another guide was feeding bits of squid to the stingrays and they were swarming around her.  It was pretty cool to watch.  Me?  I was trying to catch a stingray for myself.  It turns out that it’s not so easy.  Despite the fact that they will swim straight towards you, they are quite slick and heavier than they look.  I managed to come close just once before she slipped from my hands.  One of the guides remarked that the stingrays were noticeably antsier than they usually are.  I also saw a remarkably thin two or three foot long fish that I could not recognize but that looked pretty cool.

We departed from Stingray City and headed over to the barrier reef next.  This was the first barrier reef I had been to.  It was low tide so you could see the reef stretch the length of the North Sound as it was actually sticking out of the water.  This is some pretty cool stuff.  There was also a wreck where we went.  Some fool decided it was a good idea to try running his boat over the top of the reef instead of heading for the designated inlet.  It didn’t turn out too well for him.  There was pretty much the same fauna as our previous snorkeling trips, but this reef was much more alive than any of the others and the plant life was abundant.  Exploring the remains of the wrecked ship were fun and looking for the elusive moray eel was exciting even if none of us found her.  The only disappointment was that we were only given a half hour to explore as I could easily have done so for another half hour.  It is probably just as well that I didn’t, though, as I had a few splotches of burn on my back where the sunscreen must have washed off.

For the return trip, they broke out the alcohol and we drank and chatted.  They also attempted to raise the sails of the catamaran to sail us home, but the wind wasn’t cooperating and there is only so much you can do when you have to worry about a bunch of land lubbers running around a swaying boom.  It’s a shame because I don’t often get a chance to see a sailing crew in action up close and personal.  Note to self: learn how to sail.

After a quick shower and a quick mixing of a bottle full of Caesar, we headed to the pool at the Beach Suites to hang out for the last time with the newly married couple at the pool.  We relaxed in the pool and drank the Caesar and ate some leftover wedding cake and bid our adieus before heading to our last dinner on the island.

And where did we go for our final dinner?  Back to Decker’s so we could come full circle.  Decker’s features all you can eat lobster tail every Tuesday and Saturday night, of which we all partook.  Caribbean lobster is kind of meh.  It was fine, but not really worth getting.  There was, however, a hilarious mix-up when one of our party asked for more lobster and said three more each when we thought we were agreeing to one more each.  Needless to say, we were all stuffed to bursting before we were through.

Sunday, April 27th

It’s over!  We have an early flight back to Chicago which gets delayed an hour, but we make pretty good time on the flight home and only arrive a little later than scheduled.  The cab stand at the O’Hare International terminal was being horribly mismanaged and the cabbie we got was kind of a dick.  Yep, we’re back in Chicago.  Back to the daily grind and the everyday worries of life.

It was a good trip.  A week is just about right to spend in Grand Cayman.  I certainly didn’t want to head home afterwards, but another week on an other island would have been welcome.

Random Airplane Musing

The world doesn’t come with borders or markings.  Why hasn’t Google Glass come up with an app for that yet?  It seems like you could easily determine borders and roads and rivers with a little GPS magic to determine your altitude and location.  It would then be a simple matter of putting an overlay on the glasses to let you know what’s below you.  You should even be able to identify other planes that pass by and be able to determine their destination and such.  Oh, and clouds!  With Google Glass’ camera, you should be able to look at clouds and it should be able to tell you what kind of cloud you’re looking at.

Get on it Google!  You come up with an app like that and I will buy a Google Glass.

No More Rapescans

Looks like the nude body scanners are going bye bye.  Good riddance.  I have no problem with some stranger seeing my junk, but the things just plain didn’t work.  Wear certain types of clothes and you would have to be aggressively pat down even if the scanner didn’t show anything.  The scanners were also quite easy to fool if you knew how.  Talk about boondoggle.

They are not going away completely, though.  They’re just switching companies.  The new ones will be developed by L3 and have special software that will make the images less nudie.  They’re also supposed to be more effective.  The new ones will also not be x-ray technology so no more worries about radiation poisoning either.  My guess is they found out the radiation levels from the Rapiscan devices were much higher than advertised.

Places I won’t be travelling to anytime soon

I have read a few articles about mysterious deaths in Thailand recently.  All young women from other countries, all apparently poisoned, all died horribly.  On top of this, authorities don’t really seem willing to get to the bottom of this.  This is most likely because of the hit the tourism industry would take if it were publicized.  Thailand looks to have a serial killer on its hands and the authorities are complicit.  Stay away for now.